Off the Cuff: Carmen Ambar, President of Oberlin College


President Carmen Ambar

Melissa Harris and Christian Bolles

Today, Carmen Ambar became the 15th President of Oberlin College. With a bachelor’s degree in Foreign Service from Georgetown University, a master’s degree in Public Affairs from Princeton University, and a law degree from Columbia University, Ambar was previously the 13th President of Cedar Crest College. Yesterday, President Ambar sat down with the Review to discuss her connection to Oberlin, thoughts on the College’s financial situation, and hopes for the future.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What does it mean for you personally to become the president of Oberlin College?

It’s been an interesting process. Obviously, I’ve known of Oberlin and its distinctiveness … in this higher education landscape. So in some ways, becoming president of Oberlin is personally important to me because of Oberlin’s history, and because of its openness to African Americans in particular, and its openness to women early on in its history. … There’s certainly a part of getting this role that resonates with me at a personal level because I’m a woman of color, but I also think that Oberlin’s sort of distinctiveness as … a selective liberal arts college [with] its commitment to these issues of social justice and equity and academic excellence are so important to higher education. … And then the other piece is that one of the things that I have always done in my spare time is play the piano, and it’s an important part of how I manage my life and balance my life. But I’ve never had the opportunity to have a conservatory as part of the work that I’ve done when I’ve been a part of leading institutions. … And then … when you go through the interview process, … you start to connect with people, you start to get a little bit of a feel for the alumni base and their passion for the institution, and you start to feel that same way about it. It’s all the way through that process that I started to have more and more affection for Oberlin that was beyond just “outside looking in.”

What contact have you had with the larger Oberlin community, and how do you intend on fostering a positive relationship between the city and the College?

Not as much as I want to. It’s interesting the way these searches are done now; they’re very closed. … My goal this year is to do as much as I can to interact, both on-campus and off campus. … Under campus engagement, my goal is to try to meet with every academic department on campus, to try to meet with as many administrative units as I can. I’m [also] gonna have open office hours for students. My goal is to try to get out to various student organizations’ events and things to try to see if I can get connected in that way. I want to open up the house a bit … and try to have events in the residence. … And then I’m gonna go visit classes. I’m really excited about doing that. … What I really am doing is trying to understand what the academic experience is for students here, because I don’t think I can talk about it very effectively to people who care about Oberlin if I don’t get a sense of what that looks like.

One of the things I’m gonna do is ask students to make some suggestions about what you think the president should do to get to know Oberlin, and so I’m going to get some interesting suggestions from students about what I should do. The goal this year on that front is to try to understand the cultures and the values of this institution, so it’s going to take a lot of work.

On the outside group, I’m going to nine of the cities with the largest number of Oberlin alumni, so I’ll be going all over the place to do that. And of course, I have on my schedule meeting with all sorts of community members, which I’ve done a little bit of before I came, but not enough.

Oberlin has had a lot of tension in the past couple of years. Was this division a consideration for you when you accepted the position here, and how would you like to deal with ethically controversial situations on campus?

It’s certainly something that I took note of as I was thinking about this position. I will say — and this is not to diminish what happened at Oberlin — but it is true that campuses across the country are having all sorts of challenges, … whether it’s racial tensions, whether it’s town-gown tensions, I think that that’s happening on college campuses. … Now, when you’re in the midst of it at your own campus, it’s very personal and it’s very difficult and it’s really challenging, so I don’t want to dismiss it. … To me, when I was looking at the situation at Oberlin from afar, it didn’t seem so atypical to what I know is happening on college campuses. … I think it’s tough for all of us who are in these leadership roles to try to think about how to manage through them. They’re all distinctive and unique.

What I hope I can do and one of the big things on my list of six things this year, diversity and inclusion, is to try to see if I can help us have the dialogues in a way that allows us to come together during times of challenge. One of the things that I think can happen when these incidents rise, whether they have racial undertones or all sorts of undertones, is that people go to their corners and start to dig in on their perspectives as opposed to trying to have dialogue first. … We have a sustained dialogue pilot project that we hope to have where we bring a variety of faculty and staff together, a variety of students together from different perspectives, [and] try to talk about some key issues. … We want to … bring someone in that can have a larger dialogue — maybe more of a named person that can talk about some of these issues. We want to ultimately think about … our words and their impact, and sometimes we’re engaging in ways that we don’t intend to create harm, but we are. So that’s a long-term goal. … One of the things I said to our student leadership team of the value system that I hope that they will reflect and I will reflect — and I go through about six or seven of them — but one of them is a willingness to admit mistakes and a willingness to accept mistakes in others. I think we’ve become not really willing to do that much with each other, as people are struggling through some of these issues in their minds. … I’m just finding this time complicated — for me, too — and I can imagine what it is for students.

You have a history of getting institutions out of tight financial spots. How aware are you of the financial situation at Oberlin, and what approaches will you take to address it?

I think I’m pretty aware. I didn’t come to this position not understanding the depth of the challenge. What I’ve been saying to everyone about it … is that we’re all gonna have to be willing to remember that we’re in the same canoe together as we try to work through this. The difficult part for me — I’ll give you an analogy. When I had the triplets, I hadn’t had children before, so I was blissfully ignorant of what it meant to have children. And that was probably a beautiful thing, because if I had known, I would’ve just been, “Oh my god,” you know, “Triplets!” For good or for bad, I’m not blissfully ignorant of what it means to try to work through these challenges. … It’s difficult to make choices, prioritize and decide to let go of some things so that you can assure your sustainability.

Here’s what I know is true — that some group of people at Oberlin has to decide to be good stewards of this institution’s resources. When I say good stewards, I mean deciding that we’re gonna make the difficult decisions that we have to make to ensure its long-term sustainability. And when I say “long-term,” I’m talking about how … we make sure it’s here for 400 years, not tomorrow. Oberlin’s gonna be fine. … But we do have a long-term projection that says if we don’t make some changes, then we’re gonna have to start making some choices that we really don’t want to make. And so, better to make some of those difficult choices now than to get down the line and constrain people’s choices in the future, because then they don’t have a way to solve it. Some of that work is going to be working with the Board of Trustees. There’s a sustainability task force that’s been working for a while, so I certainly want to do that sort of work.

In the past, some of the things that I’ve done is to work with faculty and staff to think about what program review looks like … to try to see what’s the optimum mix of all the programs we can have. And it’s a difficult choice, because you have to decide, “Oh, this may be an interesting thing, but maybe that’s not the best way to devote our resources given constrained resources.” So it’s gonna be challenging. … What I’m hoping for is a willingness for the community to do this difficult work together.

And I guess the last thing I would say is that the most important thing for everyone in the community to do … is to be willing to put your institutional hat on. … Some decisions we’re going to have to make may not be perfect for that academic department, but will be the best for the institution. It may not be perfect for this particular group of students, but it will be best for the institution. It’s hard to do that if you’re in the group [that] it’s not best for, but if the institution is going to do what it needs to do, then everyone has to be willing to put the institutional hat on and say, “OK, let me think about the institution.” It’s hard to do. But I am a realist, I am a practical person, but I am also an optimist. And I don’t believe there’s any better institution to do it than Oberlin. I also think that Oberlin is a bellwether college. So goes Oberlin, so goes the rest of higher education. And if we don’t figure out how to do it, then it will be detrimental to the entire landscape of higher education. We have to be able to do it.

Oberlin is getting more expensive, and our current freshman class is smaller than past ones. In the future, how can the school both prosper and maintain economic viability for incoming students, especially those from a low-income background who have come to expect a certain level of financial aid?

It’s the conundrum of our industry, right: How do you do all those things at once? I think the truth of the matter is you have to do some of those things, and you have to have some competing interest there, that sometimes you do a little bit more of one or the other. Some of the first things we need to do though is to do some recovery of our enrollment numbers. We need to do a little bit stronger job of helping the right students choose Oberlin. And when I say, “the right students,” I mean the students who have the academic ability to be successful here and all the other things that are part of the criteria of being selective for this institution. But we need to get back to at least that core number.

Then, honestly, I think we’re going to have to think about what growth looks like, what it means to reduce our expenditures, how do we do both of those things? It’s hard to see our way through without some combination of those things. So it’s going to be complicated for us to do.

I think we’re going to have to be willing to make some tradeoffs. What my hope is, is that in those tradeoffs, we can still hold onto the core of who we are. One of the things I said to the faculty — and I think it’s true — it’s one of the mysteries of life: How do you stay true to oneself, but also be prepared for change? It’s one of the mysteries of life, right? That’s what we’re going to have to work through here at Oberlin.

… Oberlin’s relevance as an institution is more important today than it’s ever been. … When I was talking to the faculty about this, I was talking about Charlottesville. I haven’t had a chance to make comments about Charlottesville here at Oberlin because I haven’t officially started, but … when I was watching what was happening at Charlottesville, what struck me was not the discourse. … What struck me was how young those kids were. … And when I watched them, … I thought to myself, “Those kids could be Oberlin students,” in terms of age. Oberlin is relevant because the types of students that I think we are sending out into the world are the types of students who are going to be changing the world for good and responding to the message that they were trying to deliver at Charlottesville. We are more relevant today than we’ve ever been. Our willingness to make the tough decisions so that we can sustain ourselves for the future is important not just for Oberlin, not just for higher ed, but for the nation, and that’s the reason why I think we will have the will to do it. And we will have disagreements, and we will be frustrated with each other about it, but we will always come back to that fundamental principle that we are more relevant today than we’ve ever been.

To ensure that we’re here for years to come, we’re gonna have to make these difficult choices. That’s what I’m believing and hoping, because that’s why I came to Oberlin — because I believe this institution is important. I believe it has resonance, I believe it shapes the discourse around issues I deeply believe in, and I want to make sure that this institution is here for years to come. That’s the work we have to do together.